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Airplane Hits Skyscraper in Milan; 3 Die

Italy: Crash sparks fears of terrorism, but officials say pilot of the small craft reported mechanical trouble. Suicide motive is also under investigation.

April 19, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILAN, Italy — A 67-year-old businessman, flying solo and off-course after reporting mechanical trouble, plowed his small plane into Milan's tallest skyscraper Thursday, killing himself and two other people in a fiery scene that echoed the attack on New York's World Trade Center.

As black smoke billowed from the wreckage 25 stories above downtown Milan, Italian authorities said the crash, which occurred in a clear sky, appeared to be accidental. Later, they said they were checking reports that the pilot had been in financial trouble and might have had a suicide motive.

At least 60 people were injured. The explosive sound of the crash and the image of a scarred and smoking tower, disgorging office workers spattered with blood, caused panic here over a possible terrorist attack and sent stock prices into a brief tumble in Europe and the United States.

President Bush was quickly notified of the crash, and the FBI was assisting in the investigation.

"The initial information . . . leads us to lean toward an accident" as the cause, Interior Minister Claudio Scajola later told reporters in Rome, tentatively ruling out a terrorist strike.

Pilot Reported Trouble

The twin-engine Rockwell Commander punched through the 25th floor of the 30-story Pirelli building about 5:50 p.m., past normal working hours for most of the 1,300 people employed there by the Lombardy regional government. Officials said fewer people than usual were on the top five floors, which were undergoing renovation.

"We all rushed to the window, and we suddenly realized it was something similar to the World Trade towers because thousands of pieces of paper were flying through the air," said Maurizio Sala, a civil servant who works on the 20th floor. "It was the same image."

The three dead were the pilot, a cleaning woman and a government lawyer, officials said. Three hours after the crash, rescue workers found a survivor on the 25th floor.

The pilot was identified as Gino Fasulo, an Italian-born resident of Pregassona, Switzerland. They said he was approaching Milan's Linate Airport after a 20-minute flight over the Alps from the Swiss town of Locarno.

The pilot reported "a little problem with the landing gear," and the control tower instructed him to move to the west of the airport until it was fixed, the Italian air traffic controllers association said in a statement issued late Thursday.

According to the statement, the control tower contacted the pilot again after seeing he was drifting to the north, in the wrong direction, the statement added. The pilot said he was fixing the problem, and the tower instructed him to move back into position to land. But the pilot again didn't get into the right position, it said, and the control tower then lost contact.

"He wasn't able to land, so he swung toward the city center--something he absolutely shouldn't have done," said Alfredo Roma, head of Italy's civil aviation authority.

Andrea Artoni, an editor of the Italian flight magazine Volare, said the Rockwell Commander has a hand pump attached to the floor that can be used as a backup method to deploy the landing gear when the button on the control panel fails. He speculated that the pilot might have been working the pump and lost sight of where the plane was heading.

Pietro Marci, a former president of the Locarno flying club, said Fasulo had 30 years of flying experience. He said another club member saw the pilot shortly before takeoff and that he appeared to be in good health.

'Everyone Was Stunned'

A flight instructor at the same club, Luca Predolini, told Italy's ANSA news agency that Fasulo was "a bit of a cowboy pilot" who once ran out of fuel and nearly crashed his plane.

Late Thursday, two Italian television networks received and telecast anonymous tips that the pilot, who reportedly traded in artwork, was in financial trouble. An e-mail read by talk show host Bruno Vespa on Italian state TV said that tax authorities had seized $1.2 million from Fasulo recently. It gave no details.

Later, Emilio Fede, director of Italy's privately owned Rete 4 station, announced that he had received a phone call late Thursday from a man who identified himself and claimed that Fasulo owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars. The caller, whom Fede did not identify on the air, said he had been threatening to report Fasulo to the authorities.

Italian officials said they were investigating both reports as a possible motive for a suicide crash.

Luigi Fasulo, a nephew of the pilot, appeared on Vespa's program and dismissed the claims. "He had no financial or health problems," the nephew said. "He loved life."

It was the second time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that a plane has struck a high-rise building. On Jan. 5, a 15-year-old boy flying alone crashed a stolen plane into a building in Tampa, Fla.

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